Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Debunking the Myth : 2 Google Searches equivalent to a Kettle Boiling

The article opens by asserting emissions of 7 grams carbon dioxide per web search (half that, they claim, of boiling a cup of tea), while Google politely responded that the number is 0.2 grams (about 1/35th of the author's value, and susequently accepted by the Times). Muddying the water, the higher number probably includes energy used by the individual searcher's own computer [we will know for sure when the in-progress research it cites is published].

The article then uses a truncated version of Mills' statement about the energy-intensity of data centers to legitimate an effort to equate web searching emissions with those from global aviation. The unfortunate comparision to aviation actually includes not only datacenters but also personal computers, printers, telecommunications energy use plus the carbon embedded in the manufacture of those goods (how much carbon is embodied with the manufacture of that tea-kettle?). Most of this has nothing to do with web searches, or is otherwise outside the control of Google or any other search provider.

To date, no one has conducted competent peer-reviewed full life-cycle analyses of the carbon footprint of the internet (or the alternatives), so the numbers cited in the Times article should be treated as no more than speculation by industry observers or reporters who might have an ax to grind. Information technology (IT) facilities do use electricity, but moving electrons is always less energy intensive and environmentally damaging than moving atoms. By largely ignoring the structural changes in the economy that IT enables, the Times has painted a misleading picture of the environmental effects of IT.

This myth was actually put to rest a decade ago. While it is important to improve the energy efficiency of IT facilities (and the industry is making great strides in that effort, particularly Google), it is the NET environmental impact that matters, not the direct electricity use and carbon emissions of these facilities treated in isolation.

Indeed, driving an average car just one mile and back to the nearest library to manually search for information produces more than 100-times more greenhouse-gas emissions than a web search,* even given the dubious numbers proffered by Leake and Woods. Just the emissions associated with manufacturing the paper upon which the Times article was printed (not to mention, running the newspaper or transporting the papers) eclipses those from reading it online.**

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